Luger death illustrates risks in high-speed Winter Games

The Washington Post's Tracee Hamilton talks with Ivan Carter about the death of a luger from the Republic of Georgia during a training run and the health of downhill skier Lindsey Vonn.
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 13, 2010

VANCOUVER, B.C -- A luge athlete from the country of Georgia died after a horrific accident during a training run, hours before the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics took place Friday night. Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, lost control of his sled and then flew over the side of the track before crashing headfirst into a metal pole.

Kumaritashvili received CPR by medics who were quickly on the scene at the Whistler Sliding Centre and was airlifted to a local hospital, but he could not be revived. He was not considered a top competitor here, but his shocking death as organizers prepared to kick off 17 days of Olympic competition added fuel to the growing debate over whether the continued stretching of boundaries in speed and extreme sports has begun to outstrip the safety measures that have long been in place.

The continual addition of daredevil extreme sports to the Olympic program, combined with technological and physical advancements that push the limits of speed in more traditional winter pursuits, have made the Winter Games an increasingly high-flying circus of terrifying rides, uncontrolled speeds and, in some cases, pure danger.

Vancouver's new bobsled, luge and skeleton track, completed late in 2007, had generated controversy even before the accident, as it is considered the fastest in the world and most prone to crashes. International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, who addressed reporters in tears, said the international luge federation was overseeing an investigation of the track and the cause of the crash. Training was immediately suspended.

"The IOC is in deep mourning," Rogge said. "Here you have a young athlete who lost his life pursuing his passion . . . I have no words to say what we feel."

The icy track is hardly the only place risks can be found. Snowboarders will launch themselves in the air off redesigned halfpipes that have increased from 18 to 22 feet for these Games. And in the newest sports on the Winter Olympic program, ski cross for this Games and snowboardcross in 2006, high-speed collisions are considered common.

"There are horrible accidents and tragedies that happen," U.S. bobsledder John Napier said Thursday, a day before the fatal accident. "We all know the kind of sport we're in . . . We're aware of those risks."

Well-known risks

Winter sports competitions always have brought athletes, high speeds and snow and ice together, occasionally with horrifying or even fatal results. More than a dozen skiers, snowboarders and bobsledders have died after accidents on courses, including a French skier, Norwegian snowboarder and Latvian skeleton slider in 2001, and there have been three previous deaths at the Olympic Games.

Australian alpine skier Ross Milne died after running into a tree before the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria; British luger Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki also died in a training wreck there; and Swiss skier Nicholas Bochatay was killed during training for the demonstration sport of speed skiing at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France.

The deaths always have resulted in increased safety measures: more safety netting, restrictions on course design and equipment modifications. Athletes say they are confident in the safety of the ski and sled courses on which they compete, and they try to focus on their goals rather than the associated risks.

The $81 million Whistler track, however, is something new, and a bit frightening.

U.S. men's bobsled coach Brian Shimer, a five-time Olympian, said bobsleds would achieve speeds of 96 miles per hour at the Whistler Sliding Centre, about 10 miles per hour faster than during the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.

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